Northwest Family Physicians © 2012 | Terms and Conditions



What is flu?

Flu (also called Influenza) is a viral infection of the nose, throat, trachea, and bronchi (air passages). Outbreaks of flu occur almost every year, usually in late fall and winter.

Flu viruses cause more severe symptoms than cold viruses. They can also cause more severe medical problems. Older adults; people whose immune systems are impaired; and people with chronic medical problems, such as heart or lung disease or diabetes, are particularly at risk for more severe symptoms or problems.

How does it occur?

The virus is in mucus and saliva and can spread from person to person when someone coughs or sneezes. It can also spread when you touch something with the flu virus on it (like cups, doorknobs, hands and so forth) and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes.

What are the symptoms?

Flu tends to start suddenly. You may feel fine one hour and have a high fever the next.

The usual first symptoms are:

Symptoms soon to follow may include:

How is it diagnosed?

Flu can usually be diagnosed from your symptoms. Your healthcare provider may examine you to rule out other types of infection, such as strep throat and sinusitis.

There are lab tests for flu and some give results in less than an hour, but they are not as accurate as many other tests for other problems. Once flu is known to be in a community, the diagnosis is usually just based on your symptoms. In most cases there is no need to do a test.

How is it treated?

Usually you will recognize the symptoms and can manage them at home.

To take care of yourself at home:

Check with your healthcare provider before you give any medicine that contains aspirin or salicylates to a child or teen. This includes medicines like baby aspirin, some cold medicines, and Pepto Bismol. Children and teens who take aspirin are at risk for a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.

There are medicines your healthcare provider can prescribe that can make flu symptoms less severe. They may also help the symptoms not last as long. Examples of these drugs are zanamivir (Relenza) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu). These flu medicines are available as tablets or nasal sprays. They must be started within the first 48 hours of illness to be effective. Usually they need to be taken only a few days. A common side effect of the tablets is lightheadedness or dizziness.

Call your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of the flu and:

How long will the effects last?

Flu symptoms usually last 3 to 7 days. They often start getting better after the first 2 days or so.

Infection with the flu virus sometimes leads to other infections, such as ear, sinus, and bronchial infections. Pneumonia can also occur as a result of the flu. It can be caused by the flu virus itself or by bacteria infecting lung tissues that have been damaged by the virus. Pneumonia is a common cause of death in people over the age of 65 and often occurs during and after flu outbreaks.

An unusual complication of flu is Reye's syndrome, which usually occurs in children and teens and rarely in adults. Reye's syndrome is not well understood but it involves failure of the liver and swelling of the brain, which together can lead to coma and sometimes death. A link has been shown between the use of aspirin during flu and Reye's syndrome. For this reason it is best to avoid taking aspirin and other salicylates when you have the flu.

What can I do to prevent flu?

Flu shots help prevent the flu. Because the flu virus is different from year to year, you need to get a new flu shot each year. October is the best time to get vaccinated. Flu season can begin as early as October and last as late as May. Flu seasons can vary from region to region. If you are at high risk for infection and plan to travel to an area where you might be exposed to the flu, make sure you have an up-to-date flu shot before you go on your trip.

If you do get the flu even though you had your annual shot, the vaccine helps protect against severe infection.

If a flu outbreak has begun and you have not had the flu vaccine and need some protection, your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine that can decrease your chances of getting the flu during the outbreak. You will need to take these medicines for at least 2 weeks after you are vaccinated. If you don't get the vaccine, you need to take the medicine until the flu outbreak has left your community, which may be several weeks. If you do get the flu, the medicines can make your symptoms less severe.

Other things you can do to help avoid getting the flu are:

If you are sick, you can help protect others if you: